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Guest speaker weighs in on implications of military history

| Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Jesse Kauffman, associate professor of history at Eastern Michigan University, presented a lecture on the nature of military history and the role of war in European history in DeBartolo Hall on Monday.

Chris Collins | The Observer
Associate professor of history at Eastern Michigan University, Jesse Kauffman, offers his perspective on military history during a lecture about the dynamics of war, which took place in DeBartolo Hall on Monday.

Kauffman said his definition of military history aids him immensely in his approaches to teaching and conducting research.

“It can be very difficult to define with any kind of precision or clarity exactly what military history is,” Kauffman says. “I think it can help clarify things by dividing military history into three distinct, but overlapping subfields.”

At one end of the spectrum is operational history, Kauffman said. Once the sole branch of military history, operational history has come to encompass just one aspect of military history as it is known today, he said, and it refers to the classic, detailed narrative of battles and large military formations on battlefields.

“It has an important role to play within the role of military history and within history more generally,” Kauffman said. “Operational history enriches our understanding of the dynamics of war and the societies that fight them.”

Operational history, however, has its limits when it comes to analysis, Kauffman said. On the other end of the spectrum, he said, is a term coined the “new” military history.

“[‘New’ military history is] much more amorphous and ambiguous than operational history,” Kauffman said. “It arose by applying the questions and methodology of social and cultural history to military institutions, particularly armies.”

This approach to military history, Kauffman said, includes applying ideas such as citizenship and gender to the analysis of military history. Its shortcoming, however, occurs when military history becomes nearly devoid of war.

“New military history has broadened out to include not just studies of armies, but really almost any kind of social and cultural history that intersects with, even in a kind of tangential way, with war,” Kauffman says. “At best, topics bear a faint family resemblance to the field as it used to be.”

He said the “new” military history often loses sight of the violence that comes with war.

“If the term military history is going to have any meaning at all, it must not lose sense of that terrible thing at its core,” he said.

Kauffman said he identifies a third and final perspective of military history as an intermediate between operational history and the “new” military history.

“The war and society approach blends what is best at both of the far ends of the spectrum, while avoiding each of their excesses,” Kauffman said.

This approach, Kauffman said, can be viewed as a synthesis of traditional operational history of war and the “new” military history of outside influences.

“It is the study, very broadly speaking, of the interrelationship between wars, as well as military institutions and the larger political, social, technological, economic, even cultural context within which they are created and which wars and military institutions, in turn, influence,” he said.

It is this approach that Kauffman said is the prevailing perspective of military history and the one he applies to his own teaching and research.

He said this methodology relates to some of the broad themes of military history he teaches, such as armed forces and their organization, the way different societies fight wars and the impact of wars on both politics and culture.

“I focus mainly on World War I, and I look at the way states, especially Germany, reacted to the unforeseen demands of total war, how they tried to mobilize their resources to fight this kind of war,” Kauffman said. “I’ve also looked broadly at the way the war interacted with other historical forces and processes.”


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